Top 12 Notre Dame football moments of a 12-0 season

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

1. Turning the page at QB

Coach Brian Kelly decides to bench senior starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush after a 3-0 start to the season (and 12-3 as a starter overall) and install junior Ian Book as ND’s No. 1 QB. A halting, inconsistent offense was putting too much pressure on the defense, Kelly reasoned. The Irish offense instantly becomes more diverse and dynamic with Book, and the 6-foot, 203-pound California native heads into the College Football Playoff ranked in the top 10 nationally in both completion percentage (.704) and passing efficiency (162.5). Both figures, if maintained, would stand as single-season school records. ND finishes the regular season in the top 50 nationally in all nine major offensive categories, after never having previously done so in more than six during the Kelly Era. Wimbush is the unsung hero in the equation, throwing his full support behind Book and keeping the Irish locker room from splintering.

2. The remaking of Dexter Williams

It wasn’t just the return of senior running back Dexter Williams on Sept. 29 from a four-game suspension, it’s that Kelly got a better, more mature, more consistent version of the Orlando, Fla., product than he had ever flashed during his first three years on campus. The inspiration for the metamorphosis was Williams’ mother, Cheryl, a 60-year-old bundle of resiliency battling two terminal illnesses. Cheryl Williams moved in with her son at his off-campus apartment during the length of his suspension and extended her stay beyond his relaunch against Stanford. And what a relaunch it was. Williams bolted for a 45-yard touchdown run the first time he touched the ball, and ran for 161 yards on 21 carries (both career highs at the time). He had never before carried the ball more than eight times in a game or 39 times in a season. Heading into the College Football Playoff, Williams would rank eighth in yards per game (117.6) and 16th in yards per carry (6.63) if he had played in enough games to qualify for the NCAA stat leaders. His is 59 yards away from become a 1,000-yard rusher.

3. Defense closes the deal at USC

The drain of a fourth road trip in a five-week stretch appeared to finally be catching up with No. 3 Notre Dame in its Nov. 24 regular-season finale at arch-rival USC. The Irish offense sputtered in the first half, while a five-win Trojan team led 10-7 late in the first half and was driving deep in ND territory. That’s when safety Alohi Gilman ripped a completed pass out of the hands of USC freshman prodigy Amon-Ra St. Brown. And the guy with a broken left hand and gimpy right ankle, linebacker Drue Tranquill, came out of a wild scrum with the ball. Earlier, ND cornerback Troy Pride Jr., stripped the ball from receiver Michael Pittman Jr., and recovered the loose ball to end another threat. USC fired blanks against a resurgent Irish defense the rest of the way until a benign, cosmetic TD with 48 seconds left. The Irish flew home with a 24-17 victory that completed an 8,742-mile late-season journey. Not only was ND virtually assured a playoff spot, the Irish finished November as one of only two FBS teams (along with Fresno State) to hold every opponent in 2018 to 27 or fewer points.

4. Tillery, defense make opening statement

The offseason talk of a redefined Irish defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, in body and in mindset, was backed up by his actions in Notre Dame’s season-opening showdown with Michigan on Sept. 1. Tillery helped smother a Michigan running game to the tune of 58 yards on 33 carries in the pivotal 24-17 Irish triumph. The Wolverines piled up 308 yards on the ground the very next week, against Western Michigan, and never had fewer than 170 rushing yards in a game the rest of the season. The Wolverines’ 307 total yards against ND was also a season low. Still, Michigan was able to whittle a 21-3 deficit and trailed 24-17 late in the fourth quarter, with the football. Earlier in the game, Tillery had sacked Michigan’s vaunted transfer QB, Shea Patterson, on second-and-goal from the Irish 2, which eventually led to a 28-yard field goal instead of a TD. This time, with 1:02 left in regulation and Michigan at its own 45, Tillery did one better. He sacked and stripped Patterson, with linebacker Te’von Coney scooping up the loose ball to seal the win in a matchup of two top 15 teams that would evolve into playoff contenders.

5. Exit Sandman

So much of this 12-0 run came down to ND’s ability to exorcise old ghosts, and none taunted Kelly more going into an Oct. 6 matchup with 24th-ranked Virginia Tech at raucous Lane Stadium than his 1-9 record on the road against ranked teams since the end of the 2012 season. Enter Julian Love. In a tense, one-point game, Irish defensive end Khalid Kareem sacked Tech QB Ryan Willis and ripped the ball away from him. Love picked the ball up on a bounce and ran 42 yards for a TD and a 17-9 Irish lead with 1:08 left in the first half. He would add seven tackles and an interception. The Hokies answered 56 seconds later, to trail 17-16. But Dexter Williams ripped off the longest run in stadium history, 97 yards, for a TD to open the second half and ignite a stretch of domination that ended in a 45-23 romp. The 45 points were the most allowed by Virginia Tech in regulation at Lane Stadium since a 49-12 loss to Houston in 1974. That was 22 years before Bud Foster ascended to the defensive coordinator’s position at Tech and seven years before Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield formed thrash metal band Metallica of “Enter Sandman” repute.

6. Safety first at Yankee Stadium

The most challenging part of Notre Dame’s post-Brian VanGorder rebuild on defense was a safety corps that was woefully short on talent, experience and schematic fit. Notre Dame’s first game after VanGorder was fired as defensive coordinator in 2016 was against Syracuse, which the Irish won in a 50-33 October shootout. Twenty-five months later, Syracuse coach Dino Babers brought an even more powerful and balanced offense to Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17, not to mention the No. 12 team in the CFP rankings. In ND’s most impressive defensive performance of the season, the Irish safeties showed just how far they had come. Navy transfer Alohi Gilman earned national player of the week honors for his eight tackles and two interceptions. Fellow safety Jalen Elliott added five tackles and another pick, his fourth in 2018, in the 36-3 ND dismantling of the Orange. The Irish held an offense averaging 482.2 yards per game to 234, and shut out a team scoring 44.4 points a game until the final 10 seconds of the Shamrock Series matchup. The lopsided victory helped change the perception of the Irish as a team treading water to one that was improving.

7. Wimbush’s senior moment to remember

Brandon Wimbush’s first response to being demoted in late September was to stay engaged, support new No 1. QB Ian Book and to work behind the scenes to improve his craft, specifically his passing. It also happened to be his lasting response. So when Book suffered a rib injury in a 31-21 Irish win at Northwestern on Nov. 3, Wimbush was ready to step in and step up Nov. 10 against Florida State. The senior, with a fifth-year option to play somewhere in 2019, hasn’t yet pondered whether his performance in the 42-13 Senior Night rout of Florida State will be his last at Notre Dame Stadium. But if it is, what a way to go out. Wimbush’s 68 rushing yards were part of a season-high 365-yard team rushing performance, which also happened to be the most pinned on an FSU defense since 2009. He added 130 passing yards and three TD strikes as ND built a 32-6 halftime command. The Irish ran 75 offensive plays without any negative yardage plays, the first and only time an ND team had accomplished that feat in the two-platoon era (1964-present).

8. Tranquill defies medical logic

The high ankle sprain Notre Dame’s grad senior and captain Drue Tranquill suffered Oct. 27 against Navy had some of the broadcasting talking heads speculating whether he could even return by the end of the regular season. Somehow ND’s second-leading tackler at the time made it back in a week, though Tranquill admits he didn’t know whether he could play Nov. 3 at Northwestern for sure until the morning of the game. Tranquill didn’t start, but he was effective in third-down packages with five solo tackles. And his presence and play inspired his team in a 31-21 victory at Northwestern. The Irish took command of a game tied 7-7 at the half by outgaining the Wildcats, 209-32, in the third quarter. Another ghost was busted in this game, the post-triple-option hangover. The win squared Kelly’s record at 6-6 in such games and was only the third decided by more than a touchdown. Tranquill returned to the starting lineup the following week.

9. Big plays late help ND escape

The same opponent that almost derailed Notre Dame’s 2012 unbeaten regular season, Pittsburgh, threatened to do the same six seasons later, on Oct. 13. The Panthers had been pushovers early in the 2018 season but were finding their footing in October when they met the Irish on the way to an ACC Coastal division title. Turnovers, missed opportunities, a tepid ND running game and more special teams misadventures had the Irish trailing 14-6 late in the third quarter and 14-12 midway through the fourth. That’s when Notre Dame got some big plays from wide receiver Miles Boykin and defensive end Julian Okwara. The Irish went ahead, 19-14, on an 80-yard, five-play drive. Boykin covered the final 47 yards on a 12-yard reception and a 35-yard scoring strike from Book with 5:43 left. Pitt got its hands on the ball twice before time ran out, but Okwara had a tackle and five quarterback hurries in those two sequences, including one on each of Pitt’s final three plays, to finish off the Panthers and get the Irish to a much-needed bye week with a 7-0 record.

10. Toughing it out in the trenches

For the first time since toppling No. 1 Florida State in 1993, Notre Dame on Sept. 29 was on the winning end of a top 10 showdown staged in its own stadium. The beauty in this one, a 38-17 waxing of seventh-ranked Stanford, was the way then No. 8 Notre Dame flipped the script on most of the recent Irish-Cardinal clashes. This time ND controlled both lines of scrimmage throughout. “We really emphasized kicking the (crap) out of the defensive line,” said Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg, who mysteriously hasn’t been made available to the media since. Notre Dame held Stanford to 31 total yards and two first downs in the second half. The final differential in total yards was 550-229 in favor of the Irish. Jerry Tillery tied a school record with four of ND’s five sacks on the night. The unfortunate postscript was that ND lost its best offensive player at the time, left offensive guard and captain Alex Bars, for the rest of the season to two ligament tears during the game. Fellow captain Drue Tranquill broke his left hand in the game, but was able to play with a cast the rest of the season.

11. Irish join playoff conversation

For the third season in the five years of the Playoff Era of college football, Notre Dame showed up in the College Football Playoff rankings. This time, the Irish were at No. 4 — behind No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 LSU — in the first set of 2018 rankings, unveiled on Oct. 30. Notre Dame moved up to No. 3 the following week and have been a fixture there ever since. Kelly said hours before the reveal that his team wouldn’t even bother watching the ESPN hour-long gabfest. And true to form, every Irish player who spoke with the media after practice the next night had an alibi, real or embellished, for being in the dark about what had happened. Defensive end Julian Okwara had the most creative excuse, professing to having fallen asleep while watching the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The final set of standings, the playoff semifinal pairings and the other New Year’s Six matchups will all be revealed at noon EST on Sunday.

12. A chance at re-O-Line-ment

When the Joe Moore Award selection committee released its midseason honor roll in October, the 2017 winner — Notre Dame — was nowhere to be found. Not only that, but the Irish weren’t even among the nine other offensive lines that just missed the cut for the 14-team honor roll. Fast forward to Nov. 20, and the Irish were back in contention to be named the nation’s best O-Line, having been designated as one of 10 semifinalists for the award. Even the committee, in its description about the Irish, hinted that the decision to include ND was influenced as much by potential than it was consistency. But the notion that a panel — made up of talent evaluators, media analysts, former linemen and coaches that do a deep dive into film study every week — sees so much upside in the Irish bodes well for a unit that must improve significantly in December if the Irish are going to be competitive in their first-ever playoff. And its best lineman, injured left guard Alex Bars, has been helping to coach them ever since his season-ending knee injury on Sept. 29.

Ian Book became Notre Dame’s starting quarterback in the fourth game of the season at Wake Forest. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Running back Dexter Williams returned from suspension in week five against Stanford and takes his first carry of the season 45 yards for a touchdown.
Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman (11) and Julian Love (27) stop USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (8). Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes, left, and Jerry Tillery, right, work together to bring down Michigan QB Dylan McCaffrey during the 2018 season opener.
Notre Dame wasn’t daunted by boisterous Virginia Tech fans in Blacksburg, Va. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates an interception with teammate Jalen Elliott (21) against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in New York. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush made the most of his spot start against Florida State in game 10.Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill suffered a high ankle sprain against Navy to go along with the hand he broke earlier in the year. The senior linebacker would still finish the season.Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame wide receiver Miles Boykin hauls in the game-winning touchdown pass from Ian Book against Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg throws a block against Stanford as the Irish controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against the Cardinal.
Notre Dame’s offensive line continued to get better throughout the season, even after losing Alex Bars (71) in the Stanford game.